Once in a while, Chinese bureaucrats excel themselves in devising the world's most vexing regulations. It is an artform in which Communist societies generally surpass their capitalist neighbours. Thus, for the past few weeks, the expatriate chattering classes of Peking have stopped worrying about China's overheated economy, or possible political turbulence after the death of Deng Xiaoping. Among sinologists, aid workers, and businessmen, there has been but one question on everybody's lips:
"Have you got your new car numberplates yet?"
Peking's vehicles have to be re-registered because the system is in chaos. Numberplate swapping has become a favourite pastime among Chinese cars and taxis, while many drivers simply do without. But for reasons best known to the authorities, it is the f o reign-owned cars that must re-register first.
Our metropolitan odyssey starts in the south of Peking, to pick up a "car visa" form from the Vehicles Affairs Bureau. The next stop is the Automobile Inspection and Testing Bureau, conveniently located in the north of the city. En route, we call in at the "car beautician" - an imported Japanese machine that performs the mandatory steam clean of the engine and chassis. Chinese test officials demand a well-presented carburettor.
Gleaming in the morning sunshine, our car's progress is immediately halted at the gates of the testing bureau, temporarily shut because of congestion inside the compound. Apart from foreigners desperately seeking new numberplates, this is also the place for Chinese cars to take their annual MOT.
Once through the gates, some cars are more equal than others. China has always had colour-coded numberplates - it lets everyone know who really has the right of way. White plates for the military and public security; black for foreigners; green for the ordinary Chinese; and red for the public buses and trucks. The new vehicle regime is introducing yet another colour - royal blue to distinguish the growing number of privately-owned Chinese cars from common work-unit vehicles.
What follows are edited highlights from the next 10 hours in the life of Independent's modest car. Queue to pay test deposit; queue to have the engine and car frame number inspected; queue with 100 other vehicles for the first run through the computerised test bays (lights and brakes fail) and to have the headlights adjusted; queue to have the brakes fixed, but at 11.30am the brake experts have gone to lunch.
Queue for a second run through the computerised tests (one Chinese driver tells us he has spent three days on this merry-go-round); brakes fail again. Back to the brake experts; queue again for the tests; brakes pass. Queue to have the "car visa" form printed; queue to pay for tests; queue to have the form validated, but time has run out. As the sun sets over the gridlock on the Second Ring Road, one can pass the time happily counting how many cars (54) have no number plates at all.
In the days that follow the car is taken for its three photographs, for which the old numberplate must be covered. There are tens of thousands of red Xiali cars like Independent's in Peking, all identical, but each must have its picture taken. The Vehicle Affairs Bureau also insists on brass rubbings of the engine and chassis numbers.
A week later, back at the test bureau, it is time to queue for another crucial engine number inspection. Then a crisis: our car visa says "Independent (UK)" but the newspaper's red seal says "Independent". Return to Go, say the cadres. A shrewd C hinese friend pursues one inspector into the men's toilets, begs for mercy, and obtains a new car visa form. Queue to have the new form printed; queue for one final car engine number inspection; and queue to have that final official red seal.
Just one more obstacle remains before we can escape the labyrinth to pick up the numberplates on the other side of town. A surly guard insists we queue for the one-way exit, even though it will be blocked for hours with vehicles waiting for, you guessed
it, a car engine number inspection.
He escapes with his life, but only just.